One of the biggest smartphone launches of the year is in full swing.
The head of the Android smartphone pack, South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, is back with an eye on recapturing the magic that helped it gain the top position in the business.
The company has launched not one, but two flagship smartphones – the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. Both devices share a lot in common except for the display shape and battery, so our review will be focused on the Galaxy S6 edge.
Available in white, black, gold and green, with built-in non-expandable storage of 32GB, 64GB and 128GB, the choice you make (during this early period, at least) may depend more on what’s still in stock, rather than what you prefer.
The Samsung retail assistant we spoke with recommended the white model, saying that fingerprints won’t show up as easily on the glass back, compared with the other colours. We appreciated her candour, no doubt.
As for storage, we found the 32GB version more than enough for our review purposes, but if you plan to use this smartphone for at least two years, we would recommend the 64GB model … unless of course, you are swimming in cash – in which case, go for the 128GB one.
That’s because the new Galaxy S models don’t come with any memory card slots for expandable storage. For some, this exclusion itself may be a reason to not make the purchase, but clearly Samsung has seen the benefits of non-expandable storage, in terms of design (a thinner device) and simplifying the user experience (no confusion over where your file is stored).
Packaging, design and hardware
To those of you who appreciate the high quality packaging that comes with premium products, keep your expectations in check.
Samsung’s latest cardboard enclosure and sleeve are a decidedly bland and understated affair, thanks to the company’s efforts towards being more environmentally friendly.
It’s a cause we fully support, but we can’t say the same for the box design. The colour and storage option of the unit is printed at the top right corner, but blink and you might miss it.
Things really do look up, once we removed the device from the box and held the S6 edge in our hand. The seemingly universal praise from the media for the smartphone’s new look is well justified.
Gone is last year’s slightly wide, plastic body of the Galaxy S5, along with the flimsy and Band-Aid looking, dimpled design back plate and fiddly port covers.
For a premium priced smartphone, the Galaxy S6 plays the part, much more than the S5 ever did. It looks expensive and the build quality feels like a thousand bucks (in ‘Sing’ dollars, at least).
The edge is a slim and solid block that’s covered in glass on the front and back, held together by a strip of polished metal.
The damage-resistant glass is the latest Gorilla Glass 4 technology supplied by Corning and apparently developed to withstand drops on rough surfaces like roads and parking lots.
The 2.5D glass design on the back is similar to what Apple uses on its front screen, where the sides are slightly curved into the metal frame, providing a more comfortable feel.
Here is where the rear camera and heart rate sensor sit side by side, with the Samsung logo position just below.
The front is where the S6 edge gets its name from. The glass is curved on both the right and left sides and tapers down to the metal frame, wrapping around and moving the bezels towards the edge.
The visual effect is striking and attractive. When viewed from an angle, one side of the phone would look like it’s bezel-free.
Samsung deserves respect for taking the curved display down a different path, rather than follow rival LG’s footsteps to curve the entire display, such as in the case of the LG G Flex 2.
That said, this isn’t the first time Samsung has launched a curved screen variant of a flagship device. Late last year, it applied the same approach with the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge, except that the curve was only on one side of the Note Edge.
The S6 edge is balanced and symmetrical where the Note Edge was not, and as such, first impressions of the S6 edge have been far more positive.
In terms of how it feels in the hand, we believe many users may actually prefer the traditional Galaxy S6.
Due to the thinner metal frames, the sides of the S6 edge feel like they are cutting into the palm, especially after holding the device for an extended period.
And like the Sony Xperia Z3, the flat glass rear surface just isn’t as comfortable to hold compared with phones that have a slightly curved back, like the HTC One or the Asus ZenPhone 2.
Unlike Galaxy S models from the past, there is no back cover to remove, and as such you can’t replace the battery. Like the abandonment of the memory card slot, Samsung took the risk of angering its fans by going with a non-removable battery design.
We believe this is a non-issue, since we don’t know a single person who carries around a second battery for their smartphone – and even if they do, they would either forget to take it with them or lose it over time.
There are far cheaper portable batteries (power banks) in the market and carrying one of those would be more practical, since you can charge other devices with them. Plus, they aren’t as pricey as Samsung’s original batteries anyway.
One issue which bears highlighting is how the rear camera sticks out like a sore thumb on the back.
Clearly it was a challenge to squeeze that 16-megapixel shooter and have it flush against the back without enlarging the phone’s slim dimensions, but we anticipate that unless you use a protective cover on the device, the risk of scratching the lens is quite high.
Should you wish to impress someone with your latest mobile toy, this will easily do the job. But when using it on a daily basis, you may want to invest in a bumper or casing for the device.
Do note however, that Samsung’s official accessories are typically overpriced.
The S6 and S6 edge also feature a new fingerprint reader which is housed in the physical menu button itself.
The touch-based reader works better than the previous swipe-based sensor, although registering our fingerprints took longer than we expected.
Still, it works very well once registered, and has become our default way of unlocking the device. Samsung will include this biometric system into its upcoming mobile payment system, Samsung Pay.
Do the curved edges on the display provide more than just aesthetic value? The short answer is, the design and visual impact far outweigh the practical functionalities of the curves at this point.
Compared with the Galaxy Note Edge, the functions have been toned down significantly for the S6 edge, even though you can now activate the side screen functions on either side of the phone.
The curved edge can be used as a voice call notification tool, with an animated light strip and colours that can be customised. It’s a cool effect and useful as a marketing check box, but in actual use, didn’t come in that handy – simply because you’ll need to face the phone downwards, and that’s not what people would instinctively do.
We preferred just having a loud ringtone if a call was coming in.
However, when you do have missed calls or messages, you can swipe them from the active edge into the display, and quickly reply or call back immediately. These shortcuts are more practical.
The edge screen also let you get access to five contacts of your choice, presumably people with whom you most often communicate.
It also acts as a night clock and customisable ‘information stream,’ like a news ticker on TV, but just more interactive since you can swipe up or down the edge to see view different streams.
We expect third-party developers to create more streams in future, but currently, the content is limited. We can also see how this can be used for mobile advertising, though we’re not looking forward to that.
But enough about the edges, let’s get to the main display itself. It is bright, sharp and beautiful. Period.
The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED, Quad HD (2560 x 1440) resolution display clocks in at 577 PPI (Pixels Per Inch), making it the sharpest in the business.
The downside, however, is that it will be hard for the naked eye to perceive a big difference between a Full HD (high-definition) display and a Quad HD display on smaller screen sizes – and yet the Quad HD screen will use up more power from the battery.
Samsung’s Super AMOLED screens have always worn the crown for bright, vivid and rich colours with deep blacks – although some would argue that they are overly saturated.
We don’t mind the pop in the colour, but we were puzzled as to why our unit would keep turning off the Auto brightness mode and set it to a higher brightness level. While it looks great, that comes at the expense of battery life.
Samsung has also upped the stakes in the camera department. Pairing a 16-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilisation (to cope with unstable handheld shots), the results have exceeded our high expectations. The pictures simply turned out sharp and nicely exposed.
Capturing an image is fast and the user interface has been simplified (from previous generations of Galaxy handsets), so getting a great picture was hassle-free and reliable – and that’s usually the hallmark of a great smartphone camera.
Thanks to the large aperture of f1.9 and Sony’s highly capable sensor, we were able to capture more light in dark situations, so night shots turned out really well.
Aside from the basic Auto mode, there is a Pro mode which lets you manually adjust the ISO, white balance and even focus.
Like most camera apps today, you can also adjust the image using different filters. In high contrast situations, the HDR auto function kicks in to even out the brightness.
We liked the built-in Selective focus mode, which lets you decide if you want the front subject or the rear subject to be sharp, while blurring out the rest of the image – useful for macro or portrait shots.
Should you need even more camera modes and effect filters, you can download them via the camera interface.
There is however, a slight lag when switching between the photo gallery and the camera interface, but’s that’s probably the only criticism we have of this excellent shooter.
The 5-megapixel front camera, meanwhile, has two options: Selfie and Wide Selfie modes.
Even though the lens itself is wide enough to take about four to five faces in a shot, the Wide Selfie mode lets you move the camera sideways to capture more faces – almost like a selfie panorama.
On the video front, not only is S6 edge able to record in slow and fast motion, it’s capable of recording up to 4K resolution videos as well.
However, video stabilisation features will only work when recording in Full HD and lower resolutions.
Overall, Samsung has outdone itself and delivered one of the best imaging experiences in the world of smartphones.
Performance and battery life
Samsung made a lot of headlines for using its own Exynos 7 Octa 7420 chipset to power the device, instead of relying on long-time supplier Qualcomm.
We are glad it did, because this device absolutely screams in terms of performance. Benchmarks aside (the S6 edge clocked in well above other devices), the experience is just silky smooth overall, except for that gallery and camera switch we mentioned earlier.
The games that would typically cause other devices to slow down (like Rayman Fiesta Run) just didn’t suffer here. We ran a number of graphics-intensive titles through the device, as well as a number of photo and video editing apps, and we can report that the Galaxy S6 edge easily handles all of them with aplomb.
This is in spite of the fact that it is delivering it on a 2K resolution display – which really speaks to how future-proof this processor is.
Samsung also employed the industry’s latest memory and storage chips, resulting in better speeds overall.
It may sound like the perfect device by now, but here’s the big problem with the Galaxy S6 edge: The battery life.
The high-performance chipset, coupled with the industry leading display, does take a massive toll on the relatively small 2600 mAh battery.
There’s just no two ways about it – if you’re an average user, it will last barely a day. If you’re a power user, it would probably fizzle out by the time late afternoon arrives.
Instead of using a larger capacity battery, Samsung decided to tackle this issue in two ways.
Firstly, it included a fast charging capability. Using the supplied charger and USB cable, we were able to juice up the device fairly quickly. Our tests showed we managed to get around 60% of battery life in about half an hour.
The other solution is wireless charging. Since there are two main wireless charging standards in the industry today, Samsung decided to support both standards.
Samsung’s own charger costs close to S$100 or RM270, but you can purchase third-party ones at a fraction of the cost. Although charging the device wirelessly is slower, at least you can get a few of these and have them placed conveniently around you.
A third option is to use Samsung’s Power Saving modes, especially the Ultra Power Saving option which turns it into a greyscale device that runs limited apps and turns off WiFi and Bluetooth connections.
But this doesn’t take away the fact that the real downside to using the new Galaxy S models is that they run out of juice rather quickly.
Software and user experience
The Galaxy S6 edge runs on Google’s latest Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system, with Samsung’s TouchWiz customisations.
The company has been derided in the past for adding too many software features that no one really used, as well as animations and sound effects that are more annoying than fun.
As such, Samsung reportedly went back to the drawing board and overhauled TouchWiz. The result? A toned-down, cleaner version of Samsung’s Android overlay and a lot less Samsung-branded software (some call it bloatware) – although these apps are still available via the Galaxy Apps store.
The notification panel consists of a bar of shortcuts at the top which can be customised, while within Settings itself, the top portion can also be personalised with your own Quick Settings shortcuts.
The aim here is to let you get to your most often used switches without overwhelming you with a barrage of options.
The out-of-box experience was very pleasant, as the software effectively helps you move all your data from your previous device to your new one using NFC (Near Field Communications) as well as an app called Samsung Switch.
As for personalisation, Samsung now lets you download and change your entire desktop theme – similar to what its Chinese rivals have offered for a while.
The selection is limited for now but Avengers and Lego fans will be happy to know that there are a few themes dedicated to these franchises.
For enterprise users, Samsung has tied up with BlackBerry and baked in additional security features that take advantage of the fingerprint reader, so that’s something for IT managers to consider.
Pricing and availability
It’s been said before, and we’ll just say it again: The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge are Samsung’s best smartphones to date. The company has clearly stepped up its game and delivered a pair of premium handsets worthy of their top spots in Samsung’s portfolio.
They look great, feel solid and perform very well. But ultimately, are they worth their asking price?
At S$998/ RM2,599 for the base 32GB S6 model and S$1,168/ RM3,099 for the equivalent S6 edge model, there is a huge premium that you would be paying for these phones.
At this price, only diehard fans and those who really need top-shelf specs on an Android device need apply.
In terms of design, the S6 edge is more unique and the high price feels more justified, compared with the S6. We would still stay away until at least half a year down the road, when we believe prices would have come down slightly, depending on the supply.
For those who are up for a re-contract or new mobile subscription, the operator subsidy would make it less painful on the wallet and it’s worth considering being an early adopter.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 edge deserves its place in the sun, and comes with an amazing camera experience, fantastic hardware and software capabilities to be your smartphone of choice.
But with an eye-watering price and weak battery performance, you may want to wait until Samsung improves the power consumption levels of the device or when you’re able to purchase it with a subsidy.